MAPLEWOOD, NJ - Two former Columbia High School (CHS) baseball coaches who were not rehired this past season following alleged bullying have filed a lawsuit against the district claiming they were wrongly dismissed and subjected to “sham investigations” and “false and defamatory” allegations.
Former CHS head baseball coach Joe Fischetti and assistant Matthew Becht were the subjects of several harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB) complaints dating back to 2014.
Fischetti left CHS coaching ranks at the end of last summer when the school board chose not to rehire him for the 2017 season. He remains a tenured physical education teacher at CHS.
His departure ended a very lengthy and difficult time for the baseball program, which saw Fischetti accused of several instances of harassment, intimidation and bullying.
Those claims led to the hiring of an outside investigator in 2016 to look into the charges and the school board's decision to search for another coach for the 2017 season. One former student, David DeFranco, also filed a lawsuit against Fischetti, other coaches and the district claiming abusive treatment, which has yet to go to trial.
Last fall, CHS hired James Whalen, a physical education teacher at Valley View Middle School in Denville who had been an assistant baseball coach at West Essex High School in North Caldwell since 2002, to coach the Columbia varsity baseball team.
Fischetti, meanwhile, became an assistant coach at nearby Newark East Side High School while continuing to teach at CHS.
The lawsuit, filed June 30, names the entire South Orange Maplewood Board of Education, Superintendent John Ramos and Assistant Superintendent Kevin Walston as defendants. It also names Randy Nathan, the father of a former CHS baseball player who filed several HIB complaints against the coaches, as a defendant.
Citing 10 counts of alleged improper and illegal actions, the lawsuit accuses the defendants of violations of civil rights and equal protection, malicious prosecution, and tortious interference with economic advantage.
The lawsuit cites the first HIB complaint, filed by Nathan in 2014, claiming the coaches were never given proper written notification of the complaint by the district or their due process rights.
It adds that Fischetti, who was named head baseball coach in 2013, was later exonerated by then-acting superintendent James Memoli. But when Ramos took over the district in August 2015 he reopened the issue and overturned Memoli’s previous decision.
The lawsuit contends this act by Ramos “trampled the due process rights of the plaintiffs.”
“The failure to follow the strict timelines set forth in the law allowed false and defamatory allegations against the plaintiffs to remain open and were not kept confidential,” the lawsuit states, later adding that “for well over two years” the Board of Education “recklessly and negligently permitted plaintiffs to have open HIB claims held over their heads in violation of HIB law without ever providing them with their rights or any type of process to clear their name. In doing so, they damaged their reputations and caused distress.”
The lawsuit goes after Nathan as well, stating he “disparaged and defamed” the coaches “via excessive social media posts and by circulating false information to third parties.”
Nathan declined comment, saying he was not able to at this time due to the pending legal case.
The complaint also claims that the district sent the coaches a letter in December 2016 stating that, ”all HIB allegations were unfounded.” Attorney Steven Farsiou, who represents the coaches, told this reporter in April about the letter, but declined to provide a copy of it.
When asked for a copy of the letter at that time, district officials would neither confirm or deny its existence, but added that if the letter did exist it could not be released due to it being part of a personnel matter.
Farsiou did not respond to requests for comment, while School Board president Elizabeth Baker declined comment, citing it as a pending legal matter.
The lawsuit, meanwhile, adds that the defendants have allegedly “defamed and slandered the plaintiffs to third parties and have tortuously interfered with their paid coaching positions as well as other coaching opportunities.” It also claims they were “outwardly hostile toward the plaintiffs and very much wanted the plaintiffs terminated from their coaching position.”
The complaint seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorney fees.